Try to imagine your worst day in recent memory. Really picture it. Get that horrific experience fresh in your mind. Does it compare to losing your job, your car, your significant other, and your pizza all in the same day? Chances are, probably not.
All these calamities pile up for John Winger (Bill Murray) in director Ivan Reitman’s comedy “Stripes,” which turns 30 years old today. Out of everything, what stings the most for John, are his girlfriend’s words when she dumps him, “You’re going nowhere John, and it’s just not that cute anymore…” John attempts to use humor to save face when he responds, “Come on, it’s a little cute…” However he knows it’s too late to save his relationship and he has no one to blame for ruining it except himself.
In his darkest hour, John leans on his best friend Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis). While the two are knocking back a cold one, they see an Army commercial on television. The ad surprisingly inspires John to join, so that he can straighten his life out. John cons Russell into following him in this crazy endeavor, under the premise that being in the Army will get them women. Using this motivation, John and Russell head down to the local recruiter to sign their lives over to Uncle Sam.
They receive a rude awakening however, when they arrive for basic training. John and Russell discover that their laidback attitude and sense of humor are not appreciated by their drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates). John’s insubordination and lack of motivation specifically, earn Hulka’s wrath in the form of extra pushups and cleaning details. Their rivalry becomes a running gag over the course of the film.
Thankfully the two hapless heroes are joined by a platoon of equally entertaining misfits including the overweight Ox (John Candy), the dope Cruiser (John Diehl), the nut Psycho (Conrad Dunn), and the stoner Elmo (Judge Reinhold). Together, the crew struggles through the intense physical challenges of basic training, while attempting to maintain their sanity. There’s even a bit of romance in there too. John and Russell encounter a couple of foxy Military Police officers who they attempt to woo.
“Stripes” is Bill Murray in his comedic prime. Murray portrays John Winger, with a unique poise that makes this slacker lovable, despite his immaturity. It also helps that Murray has a way with inspirational words, albeit strange ones, that get other characters to follow him.
Ramis makes Russell sympathetic as well, with his timid nature and his quiet cynicism, which are the perfect complement to Murray’s swagger. Since Russell is easily convinced to break the rules, his tendency to enable John’s irresponsible behavior gets them into some humorous pickles during the movie, like their joyride in a top secret military vehicle.
Ivan Reitman’s film possesses all of the main qualities you would suspect from a successful guy comedy: wisecracking characters, machismo, gratuitous nudity, and sing-alongs like the well-known “Do Wah Diddy.” For these reasons “Stripes” is a classic movie that remains as funny today as it was when it first came out. It’s just good old-fashioned comedy, like Murray’s other 80s gems “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters.”
My Grade: A